Violins and Fire

The violins play as the city burns. I experienced this irony against my skin yesterday.

The streets of Cape Town were taken over by angry students during the #FeesMustFall campaign. The riot police attempted to control the students with stun grenades and rubber bullets. Cape Town became a war zone. Streets were closed off. Police were deployed. The traffic came to a halt. Fear hung in the air.

In the Cape Town City Hall we were filming during the rehearsal for the world premiére of Bongani Ndodana-Breen’s composition of three Ingrid Jonker poems for symphony and soprano, one of which is the well known Die kind (The child ). Venda soprano, Goitsemang Lehobye, sang the works in Afrikaans.

The irony of it all was chilling. All that separated the city hall from the streets filled with angry crowds, was a single wall. There we were in a marble palace with sweeping staircases and beautiful chandeliers. Outside there were poor students who were ready to torch everything in sight. Inside the violins played and a soprano sang, accompanied by the oldest symphony orchestra in Africa. Outside we could hear the wailing sirens and the beat of helicopters. Inside the drums sounded to the rhythm of the music. Outside was the ominous chanting of the crowd that was blocked at Darling Street. All of this on the other side of the sandstone walls.

I interviewed Bongani in the same room where Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 21st birthday in 1947. Now and then the noise penetrated, but the thick rugs and heavy curtains and furniture absorbed the anger. Bongani spoke about Die Kind and how he, a black Xhosa male, had approached the poem – he sees Jonker as an empathetic humanist rather than an angry political activist. He also says that he chose to interpret Jonker as himself – as a black Xhosa man.

The noise was all around us. We looked for a quiet place where we could record the interview with Goitsemang. Up stairs and down stairs. Up corridors and down corridors. We discovered a large colonial room with paintings of past mayors and rich, dark woodwork. Goitsemang is a Venda and speaks Afrikaans. We do the interview in English. A jolly dramatic soprano with a strong personality. She hugged me after the interview. A photograph was taken. She was in a hurry – her romantic other was waiting outside.

Later that afternoon we had to do a quick interview at Artscape. Levuyo of the symphony orchestra was our chauffeur in his cramped Chico – he knows the short cuts. We ran into police and a protest. It was hot. We sweated. We smelled their sweat. Got worked up because we couldn’t keep to our schedule. The police guided them away neatly. Just around the corner. Peacefully.

That evening the city hall was packed to capacity. We had the best seats for the filming – right in the front on the balcony. The performance was triumphant. We let the richly textured, tranquil and evocative music flow over us. There are references to the bow harp (uhadi) and recognisable melody contours of Africa. Bongani is known for his minimalist style – he says it comes from here, from Africa. The music also contains protest music references, and martial music to represent the apartheid state.

I realised there just how privileged we actually are to live in this country – alone under the southern stars. Here there is a human and cultural wealth, energy, textures, adventures. Also compassion for each other. We just need to see it and to embrace it. And how wonderfully music binds all these things together. Even if the violins play while it burns.

The child – Ingrid Jonker (March 1960)

The child is not dead
The child lifts his fists against his mother
Who shouts Afrika ! shouts the breath
Of freedom and the veld
In the locations of the cordoned heart

The child lifts his fists against his father
in the march of the generations
who shouts Afrika ! shout the breath
of righteousness and blood
in the streets of his embattled pride

The child is not dead
not at Langa nor at Nyanga
not at Orlando nor at Sharpeville
nor at the police station at Philippi
where he lies with a bullet through his brain

The child is the dark shadow of the soldiers
on guard with rifles Saracens and batons
the child is present at all assemblies and law-givings
the child peers through the windows of houses and into the hearts of mothers
this child who just wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga is everywhere
the child grown to a man treks through all Africa
the child grown into a giant journeys through the whole world

Without a pass